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Tips for Getting the Most Out of (Very) Short Workouts

You can still burn calories and blast fat in brief bursts of exercise

A couple indoors at home, doing exercise on the floor

Halfpoint/Getty Images

En español | Every morning before she gets into the shower, Debra Finger, a teacher in Philadelphia, does push-ups — no excuses allowed. “I don't have a lot of time for anything else,” she explains. “I do another set after the shower and go.” Finger, 50, has been doing this for years. While her gyms and workouts have changed over time, the one constant is her morning push-ups. Her sculpted arms are proof of her decade-long commitment.

Experts agree, there's a lot to like about very short workouts, and they're far better than no exercise at all. “The first rule is that there are no rules when it comes to quick workouts,” explains celebrity trainer David Kirsch, director of health and programming at the Core Club in New York City. “Whether you're a beginner or a more advanced exerciser, you can do a short series of basic exercises anytime, anywhere.”

What's more, like Finger, you don't need a gym or a lot of equipment. You can do quick workouts in your living room or anywhere else — the local park in your neighborhood or on the way to the office if you park farther from your building, or by taking the stairs, instead of an elevator.

How much time is enough?

There are no set rules for how long your quick workout should last. Though research has shown significant benefits of a 10-minute workout that includes just one minute of intense exercise (where you increase the pace of your walking, running, or movements), a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology revealed that a slow five- to 10-minute run can reduce the risk of heart disease.

Kirsch himself is a fan of the five-minute workout. “The five minutes doesn't preclude you from doing any additional exercise time,” he notes. “You can do five or six five-minute workouts throughout the day, if you have the time, and you'll have completed a 30-minute workout by the end of the day.” In this way, you can make your mini sessions work for your schedule, your energy levels, your health and your life.

Trainer Jorge Cruise, author of The Cruise Control Diet, swears by an eight-minute regimen. “No one has time for long workouts,” says Cruise, who endorses a mix of eight-minute low-intensity and high-intensity yoga moves. “Quick workouts are realistic,” he points out. “They give people hope that they can accomplish something even if they don't have a lot of time."

However many minutes you shoot for, experts say, scheduling a brief workout in the morning is generally best. “If you wait until midday or evening, most people don't end up doing it,” Cruise observes. “What's more, when you work out in the morning, you get the benefits of doing exercise all day long.” This includes the boost of the feel-good chemicals serotonin and dopamine, as well as a rise in metabolism, which occurs after exercise, particularly the high-intensity kind. Regular aerobic workouts also improve cognitive health and can aid memory, according to new research.

Why intensity matters

While any movement is better than none, maximizing your time during a quick workout by alternating between low-intensity and high-intensity moves will elevate your heart rate, enabling you to burn more calories and fat and providing results like weight loss and toning much more quickly.

Called high-intensity interval training (HIIT), this type of workout has been shown to burn 25 to 30 percent more calories than moderate-intensity exercise. Research also indicates that it keeps your metabolism, or fat-burning furnace, stoked all day. Plus, Kirsch says, “Just two to three minutes of high-intensity moves boosts blood flow to the body and the brain, making you feel more alert and healthier.”

Doing activities like calisthenics without rest between each move counts as high intensity, says Kirsch, whose three-minute total-body workout is at least 10 to 12 reps of lunges, push-ups, squats and planks — done one after the other to increase heart rate. Planks are one pose that Kirsch believes should be added to any quick-workout routine.

"Planks engage your postural alignment,” he notes. “As we age it's vitally important to keep our core and back strong for balance and posture. Planks can help do that.” When doing a plank pose, it's important to steadily increase the time that you're able to hold it. If you can hold it for only a few seconds to start, just do that. As with all exercises, listen to your body, and add more moves or greater intensity as you progress and build endurance and strength.

If you have a little extra time, Kirsch suggests adding on two to five minutes of cardio, such as walking up stairs (or using a stair climber at the gym), using a rowing machine or doing a few yoga moves. He likes the idea of supplementing a quick, higher-intensity morning routine with five minutes of low-intensity, restorative yoga moves before bed. The key is to find the window — however small — that works with your schedule, and if you want biceps like Finger's, sticking with it over time.

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